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The Farnborough Airshow 2012: Glimpses of the Future

Posted by Robbin Laird on



This year’s Farnborough Airshow is bookmarked by the Euro crisis, and the fates of the Chinese and American economies. On the defense side, there is the end of a land war era for the U.S. and significant uncertainty about how global events will change how countries seek to arm and defend themselves in the years ahead.

Of course, Farnborough, like every major European airshow, will offer the usual Airbus and Boeing show on the civil side. This show is both predictable and fun, because each year one or the other “proves” that they are the greatest commercial airplane builder in the world.

Boeing seeks to prove that they are the best global partner and 100 percent American at the same time, which is always amusing to watch. And for Airbus the A380 boom in sales is always just around the corner.

Of course, shaky international finances will stalk the show, and put any Boeing-Airbus projections of global markets under serious scrutiny. But the show is always saved by a global gaggle of aerospace analysts selling their wares and analytical models, which banish such uncertainty from future global forecasts — at a price, of course.

A key development evident at both Paris and Farnborough every year is the growing presence and import of non-Western aerospace players. The Chinese, the Russians, the Brazilians, and others increasingly show up and provide prototypes or fly new planes, which reveal their evolving prowess and plans to pouch onto the Airbus-Boeing duopoly.

And then we come to defense. Navigating the defense vendors at the show is challenging. What an outsider finds most interesting are the vendors from the small to mid-sized companies. But trying to find where they are and who they are can be challenging.

One of the things that has puzzled us for years is why these shows can not adapt to modern technology. There are gaggles of vendors distributed over a make-believe town for a few days; trying to navigate to them is tough. For folks like me, we walk. If you are important, you get a car; if you are connected you get a golf cart. But the traffic is dense, so if you walk you beat the drivers, whether by car of golf cart.

Here is an idea. Why not come up with an electronic catalog where the firms are correlated with the technologies or product and organized by function. Say I would like to talk to folks producing engines for unmanned vehicles of various sorts, who are they, where are they and why would I want to visit them?

This year several US firms are not showing up at Farnborough to save costs, hassle or whatever. Unfortunately for the US, the world does show up, and nature abhors a vacuum.

As for 21st century new air systems, the stars of the Air Show are likely to be the new Airbus Military A400Ms, and the proliferating Airbus tanker, the 330MRTT. The continuing drama of the Indian fighter downselect, the Brazilian and South Korean fighter decisions will dominate the big-ticket defense air items.

UAVs will be flying around but they are really not great stars for an air show. They are too small to see easily; if you can see them, you’re asking yourself, why am I looking at a model airplane — I thought I had grown up.

The most significant flying defense program will not be at Farnborough. Still, the F-35 will be a centerpiece no matter what is actually flying. A key benchmark will be the presence of F-35 pilots in a panel to talk about the production aircraft, which they are flying. Non-test pilots are starting to fly the planes, the first Yuma Marine air station F-35B squadron will be stood up this fall with BF-21 due to Yuma in November of this year.

Having F-35 pilots speak at Farnborough is a good benchmark of progress. Getting the plane into the hands of the warfighters is what is happening and needs to be accelerated.

Because Farnborough is a global show, the allied dimension is always important to any US presence and presentations at the show. That means in the defense world the F-35 will be the centerpiece. The recent Norwegian decision to buy up to 50 aircraft is the continuation of significant allied commitment to the program. At the end of the month, Japan should fully commit to the purchase of the plane as well.

Robbin Laird, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is an International defense consultant, owner of the Second Line of Defense website, and a former National Security Council staffer. Ed Timperlake works with Laird on SLD and was the Pentagon’s director of technology assessment in the Office of Secretary of Defense.

What do you think?